By Jim Ellis
Sept. 18, 2017 — Virginia is the most unique political state in the country when it comes to nominating political candidates. Party leaders and the incumbents themselves have great authority not only to schedule their nomination date, but also over what process will be used to determine a nominee.
At the congressional level, each district can independently decide upon its own nomination system irrespective of how the state and other CDs may operate. Therefore, some of the 11 districts may hold a direct primary, others a convention, and still others a “firehouse primary,” which is a hybrid between a convention and a direct primary.
In this latter option, voters visit a polling place, often times in a firehouse, but the number of sanctioned voting locations are few and far between thus forcing people to drive miles in order to participate. The entire system is designed for party leaders and incumbents to exact strict control, and their decisions more often than not keep rank and file voters away from directly choosing the eventual nominee.
Northern Virginia Democratic leaders are now contemplating what to do in the state’s 10th Congressional District where no fewer than nine candidates have already announced in hope of opposing second-term Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-McLean) in the 2018 general election. The 10th District Democratic Committee met over the weekend for purposes of discussing their nomination options, hence the serious discussion of limiting voter participation to a district convention.
The large number of contenders appear to be causing problems for the party leadership especially when many of them, including US Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Fairfax) and Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), went out on a political limb to recruit state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-Loudon) into the race.
Now, with several serious candidates organizing effectively and Wexton under-performing on the fundraising circuit, the Loudon County state legislator is clearly pressuring party leaders to close the process. Undoubtedly, some of the promises made to entice Wexton into the congressional contest included paving the way for her nomination – pledges made before so many people came forward to run. Now, apparently she is insisting that her partisan mentors keep those promises.
Since many powerful party leaders, including Reps. Connolly and McEachin, were active in the Wexton recruitment process it will be in their personal interest to do whatever possible to ensure that she becomes the nominee if they hope to retain credibility to influence future elections.
Of the nine announced candidates, only five filed a campaign committee prior to the June 30 financial disclosure deadline. Looking at the reported funding levels, Wexton was only the fourth best fundraiser. Former state Department official Alison Friedman, Obama Administration Veterans Affairs appointee Lindsey Davis Stover, and businessman and Iraq War veteran Dan Helmer all raised more campaign funds than the inside favorite, Sen. Wexton. Only educator Deep Sran recorded weaker numbers.
With Wexton in early trouble, it is clear the party leaders’ best option is to schedule a convention so they can better control the process. This will undoubtedly cause all of the other candidates to feel wronged, which can only help Rep. Comstock increase her advantage toward re-election.
In many races across the country, Democratic candidates are lining up to run. In Northern Virginia, however, the act of changing the nominating system away from a full participation primary and into a closed caucus may actually aid the very opponent they are all attempting to defeat.
The local party has an interesting decision to make in the next couple of months. In this situation, their action in what is normally a mundane process could have a profound effect upon how this important congressional campaign eventually resolves itself.